This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House on a proposed Communications Allowance for MPs
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). He carried me with him for half of his arguments. One of the motions before us relates to short speeches, but we are not doing frightfully well on that score this afternoon. I propose to bring down sharply the average length of speeches in this debate.
When the Leader of the House opened the debate some three hours ago, he painted a rosy picture of parliamentary reform since 1997. He rightly said that there have been some improvements—including Westminster Hall and the Prime Minister’s appearance before the Liaison Committee. Had the Leader of the House’s speech been even longer, I am sure that he would have recognised the items to be put in the scale on the other side. For example, there is a widespread view that Parliament is increasingly bypassed. Ministerial announcements are made outside the Chamber. We had the fiasco of the Robin Cook reforms to the Select Committees being voted down. We have seen a loss of flexibility in Standing Committees because of the automatic programming of Bills. We have more and more Government amendments. The House of Lords has to put right legislation that we have not had time to put right here—and we have had the shambles of House of Lords reform. Whether we are better able to hold the Executive to account is a more balanced question than the Leader of the House implied when he opened the debate.
On September sittings, I do not mind sitting in September, but I do not want to come back then and sit for two weeks. The Leader of the House suggested an eminently sensible way forward—that we do not deal with this question in an ad hoc way, but take a more holistic view of how and when we sit. We could then revisit the question of whether to sit in September against the background of that debate.
I want to speak briefly to motion 6, which invites us to endorse the principle of establishing from 1 April next year a separate allowance to help us to communicate with constituents about parliamentary business. It also instructs the Members Estimate Committee to prepare a detailed proposal for such an allowance. Motion 6 differs from the others in that no explanatory memorandum is associated with it, nor any Select Committee report that sheds light on the case that it makes.
I recognise that there is always a balance to be struck between the need for prudence with public expenditure—something that has not been mentioned in the debate as much as it should have been—and the imperative of bridging the gap between elected and elector that could undermine Parliament’s legitimacy. We should never forget that one reason why we are all here is to keep a watch on what happens to our constituents’ taxes. We need to be doubly careful when, as is the case with motion 6, hon. Members rather than the Executive are the conduit through which the taxes pass. We must also recognise that the House’s reputation is involved when it votes increased allowances for itself.
We discuss motion 6 in something of a vacuum as we do not know what it will cost. It need not cost anything, but the Leader of the House’s response to an intervention suggested that the motion will have an associated cost. Nor is it clear how the motion relates to the work on fixing our allowance in which the Senior Salaries Review Body is presently engaged. Will the SSRB be asked to contribute to the work mentioned in the motion, or does the motion, in effect, pre-empt one aspect of the board’s work?
If the proposed allowance is approved, it should replace rather than supplement the two existing IEP funding regimes—one of them for free stationery and postage, and the other for funding stationery and postage, parliamentary newsletters and similar publications, and websites. If those hopes were fulfilled, there would be consequential implications for the scope and level of the residual IEP allowance. However, if the proposal allowance is to be introduced not at nil net cost, but as a way of providing additional headroom for expenditure, I have not heard a compelling case so far today in support of the House voting in favour of providing up to £6 million in increased public expenditure.
The current regime has featured in recent cases considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee. Like the one chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), my Committee does not travel far: since I have been Chairman, I do not think that we have ever ventured beyond Committee Room 13. The Committee has found significant shortcomings in the regime for free stationery and postage and in the IEP regime. Our concern about those shortcomings, which affect all parties in the House, is shared by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
The cases at the heart of the Committee’s ninth and 12th reports highlighted some of the weaknesses and ambiguities in the existing rules for postage and stationery. In our ninth report, we supported the replacement of the current arrangements by a single unified stationery and postage regime, governed by one clear set of rules. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) noted that it was somewhat farcical that one cannot claim back money from the IEP in respect of a House of Commons envelope, but that one can do so when one bought a postage stamp and put in on a plain envelope.
The Committee considered that the introduction of a unified regime would benefit both hon. Members and the wider public’s confidence in the system. We also said that we would work with the House of Commons Commission and the Administration Committee, as appropriate, to ensure that the rules surrounding such a regime, whatever form it ultimately took, were clear and capable of effective enforcement.
The question of the scope of material that properly could be included in an IEP-funded publication has also concerned the Committee, and was dealt with in our ninth report. That report found that there were considerable differences of interpretation, to put the matter tactfully, among Members of Parliament about where the boundary lay between legitimate parliamentary activity, which can be funded out of the IEP, and party political and campaigning activity, which cannot. I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South about the incumbency factor that we are building into the allowances.
The Committee commented that those significant differences of view among hon. Members represented a very unsatisfactory position from the perspective of those who have to enforce the rules, and that they needed to be addressed. We said that we would look further at the general matter of publications funded
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from the IEP and determine whether there was scope for a tighter definition of permissible expenditure.
If the House agrees the motion, the Members Estimate Committee will, in effect, be given the task of making proposals for a communication allowance and will have to address the shortcomings to which I have just referred and which we planned to examine. I do not envy the Committee its task of dealing with the various interpretations of what exactly constitutes parliamentary business. As someone who, along with the hon. Members for Sunderland, South and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), will have to enforce the rules if a new communication allowance is introduced, I stand ready assist the Members Estimate Committee in drawing up clear, readily understood rules for the new allowance, which are capable of effective enforcement. That is in the common interest of Members and those responsible for enforcing the rules; it is also in the wider public interest.
Finally, if the communication allowance were to be introduced on a nil net cost basis I would support it, because it would bring in a cap, which we do not have at present, for postage and stationery. If, however, there were to be a net cost to the taxpayer—as seems likely—I would oppose it. I am not persuaded that the case has been made. At a time when public services are under pressure—for example, today there is a rally on behalf of those concerned about difficult decisions in the NHS—I do not believe that the case for higher expenditure to support that particular aspect of our activity has been made.